Friday, 6 October 2017

The Catastrophe Trials (1991)

One of my earliest surviving tales, I wrote this in one quick session at the end of December 1991 and it inaugurated a series of adventures featuring Titian Grundy, the absurdist Prefect of Police in a futuristic society located on the Isle of Chrome. This linked series formed a novella called 'The Long Chin of the Law' that was published as one of the three linked sections of my book Nowhere Near Milkwood in 2002. There are other tales set on the Isle of Chrome and perhaps one day I will write more stories about Titian Grundy himself. But this was the very first.

In the old days, of course, murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. And let there be no doubt that they took full advantage of their freedom. They rushed and shook, shattered and toppled whenever it suited them. They had no conscience.
The first Natural Disaster we arrested was the volcano that erupted on the outskirts of our City when the President was making his inaugural speech. Without stopping to retrieve his hat and coat, he raced to the scene with many attendants and ministers. He did not hesitate to show his concern on camera. The ash had engulfed one of the richer suburbs, the President’s majority.
There was a hung Parliament then, an economic crisis followed as share prices fell sharply. The President took to drink and gambling. Women were a mystery to him. His nose was too large. Before he had completely destroyed his liver, we decided to take action.
The trial was swift. Our Judges proclaimed the volcano guilty with due solemnity and sentenced it to life imprisonment. They stood on the volcanic glass and hammered off pieces as souvenirs. We solved the problem or removing the remainder to a place of security by constructing the prison around it. We used iron bricks. We threw away the key.
To be perfectly honest, the idea was not entirely my own. I knew a poet once who suggested it. She had long hair and a winsome smile. I loved her, but I could never give her any credit, not even of the financial sort, and thus it was I, Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police, who became the renowned and much-loved one.
There followed a period of prosperity then, hope, luxury even. There was a Golden Age of sorts. We expected a Platinum one to be just around the next corner.
The blue Tsunami rolled in from the east, towering so (I gesture here with upraised eyes) that we could not see the noontime sun. It bore an island with it, one of the outlying Aracknids wrenched free from the Continental Shelf, palm-trees and huts and village life all still intact upon the rich soil, although the latter considerably disrupted, and it crashed down on our wharves with the force of the Cosmic Serpent’s own heartbeat. Our crystal piers became shards, glistening on the green waters of the harbour, a hazard to shipping for many years to come. Very pretty they looked too, those shards, more pretty even than the original structures, though that is missing the point.
We had greater difficulties with this one. After all, the guilty party had melted away into the greater ocean again. We had nothing to point the finger at any more. But we were not foiled so easily. We employed mathematicians to calculate the probable volume of water involved and we pumped this amount directly out of the sea. We were not above punishing innocent liquid if necessary, yet we felt sure that at least some of the molecules we had acquired had been responsible.
We took longer over this trial. We stored the water in a large outdoor tank and adjourned often, fishing or boating on the accused, thus forcing some Community Service out of it while we waited for the verdict. Naturally, the Defence Lawyer was outraged. He was also frustrated. We cut his wages, handpicked the Jury ourselves and let them make the correct decision. We tortured our captive with red-hot pokers.
During these revolutionary changes in the legal system, I never failed to miss my poet. I tried to behave like an ordinary man: I visited the President and played croquet on his lawns. I married a beekeeper and asked my poet to become my mistress. She turned me down, however, having had enough of such romantic entanglements. She adopted a cat and took in lodgers instead.
You know the way I feel about my work. I have had doubts, but they have been few. I do not believe that I must justify my actions. I have posed nude, grown a fiery beard and learnt to juggle. I envy the arty set, I suppose. I can no longer walk into a student pub without being jeered at. I love my poet more than ever. I have not yet forgotten her name.
I write this report as a story for good reasons. Last summer, a particularly vindictive tornado escaped from its reinforced bottle and wrecked my office. All my papers were shredded. My filing-cabinets were peeled back and my secretaries stamped through the floorboards. I was left without a single record of my achievements. That is why I must circulate this one more carefully. Perhaps it might even find its way into the pages of a fiction magazine.
These tornadoes, incidentally, were my first real mistake. We collected them in barrels at first, but these were easily burst. We tried jars before bottles. Our bottles were made out of stainless steel. We had to wait until the tornado began to die and shrink to the correct size before pouncing. This did not seem to deter others: they saw how much damage they could do before they were apprehended. They began to come in pairs.
The mistake I made was as follows: I issued instructions to bottle tornadoes before they had formed. We collected them before they had committed any crimes, and forged the documentation. The scheme seemed to work quite well. The number of arrests increased dramatically. I was awarded a bonus.
And then one day, I received a telegram from the pressure group Amnesty Interstellar. They had been making the rounds of the prisons. One of the developing tornadoes I had arrested had turned out not to be a tornado at all, but a dust-devil. I was disgraced. I had to resign and move into politics.
The President and I became firm friends. We both complained about the World, about life, about women mostly. I drank espresso and smoked fat cigars. The President wrote pamphlets and picked his nose, which were both tasks that could take all day. My captive tornadoes were released. An independent body was set up to monitor Police procedures. My statue in the plaza was defaced.
I am no longer handsome, but my poet is still beautiful. She now works as a Careers Officer. There is a man who wants to marry her. He takes her to restaurants in a solar-powered glider. I know: I have seen them. I will follow them one day in my hot-air balloon. I have kidnapped her cat.
The President keeps a typhoon in his cellar. A man I know at the prison smuggled it out to us. In the evenings, the President, the cat and myself, creep down the winding stairs and peep cautiously at it. We are careful not to open the door too wide, in case it escapes. We feed it model towns which it devours with great avidity.
The World is going soft. We will soon return to the old days, when (as I said before) murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. Sentences are being reduced everywhere.
I hear that even the volcano on the outskirts of the City is due up for parole next year.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Pig Iron Mouse Dooms the Moon (2012)

Whimsy is an essential part of the literature of the fantastic and indeed I am prepared to argue that it forms the most basic and essential foundation of any attempt to create a genuine work of imagination, because although it doesn't take itself seriously in thematic terms its proper rendering in prose is a serious endeavor in itself. In other words its existence is paradoxical. The most poignant archetypes of fantasy have frequently been inaugurated in whimsical works before transmigrating to more somber and portentous fictions.

I’ll tell you why I hate the moon so much, said the Pig Iron Mouse, his whiskers twitching and picking up radio broadcasts from far away. I don’t have any secrets, and if I did I wouldn’t keep them from my friends, and even if you weren’t my friends I would tell you anyway, I would, he added with magnetic sincerity.
     The light, that’s why, that’s the reason! That mellow spreading on the charred toast of the shadowy landscape of night, it makes life harder for any nocturnal creature that fears predators. And I live in constant dread of the Molybdenum Cat, that prowling howling demon with the electric headlamp eyebeams.
     He can switch them off when the moon’s full and then he’s more dangerous than ever and only last year he pounced on the Cupronickel Vole and dented him to death with his teeth, and that’s not the way I want to go, no sir, no madam, not the way at all! Pounced on from behind a tumbled stack of science journals.
     So I decided to get rid of the moon, do away with it, break the blasted thing and even the odds a little, a smidgen, a sliver. And I thought of ways I might accomplish this feat and it occurred to me that maybe the best course of action would be to catch the moon as it touched the horizon on its way to bed. I decided to impale it.
     Now I’m not cruel, not at all, and I didn’t want to make the moon suffer, so I raised a very long thin sharp pole on the horizon and I greased it for the entire length, and I knew that the moon’s doom would be quick on that slick skewer and nearly painless. I used all my engineering expertise to make that deadly pole, truly I did.
     Then I waited for the moon to rise in the east and travel across the sky and settle down unawares on my lethal spike, but for some reason the full fool missed my trap, cunningly wrought and perfectly positioned as it was, and set behind the pole. I was dismayed, let me tell you! Had I made an error with my calculations?
     Well, I set off on foot and reached the base of the pole and there I saw that it no longer stood on the horizon. Somehow the horizon had moved further away to the west. Maybe it was migrating for the season, heading elsewhere to breed or feed or do whatever it is that horizons do to keep themselves in line, I don’t know.
     So I made another pole at the place where the horizon had gone to, it was an identical greased spike, long thin sharp, and I waited again and once more the moon missed the point and set behind it. I puffed my cheeks and popped a rivet in the left one, that’s how exasperated I was, and I set off to locate the new site of the horizon.
     This went on and on and I never succeeded in impaling the moon and one morning I reached the horizon and saw that a pole was already there. It was the first one I had fixed in place. I had gone right around the entire planet! That realisation annoyed me slightly and I felt despondent and very tired and I was embarrassed also.
     You are going to ask me where the Molybdenum Cat was during this time. It’s a good question and the answer is that I don’t know, no sir, no madam, but I guess he was around about, lurking smirking, metal fur bristling, waiting for the opportunity to pounce, but that opportunity clearly never came for here I am, still here, me, talking to you.


I wanted to know, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, how the moon was avoiding my traps so successfully, so I decided to find out. What I did was this, he added, his whiskers drooping and the signal fading and the strange dance music from distant lands dying. I plucked out my left eyeball, the one above the cheek that had popped the rivet, I did.
     I plucked it out and it was already loose, so it didn’t hurt much, and I made a rocket engine powerful enough to carry that eyeball, which after all was a minimal payload, out of our atmosphere, with its odour of buttercups and weasels, and into space, outer space, and through the void, the external void, all the way to the moon, and down.
     When the eyeball was safely down on the surface of the moon, it was able to peer up at our planet, the world we’re standing on right now, and watch as the Earth travelled across the sky and set on the horizon. That’s what it saw, and because it saw that then so did I, because it was my eye, still my eye, up there on the moon, our moon.
     And then I realised that it was all a matter of perspective. That’s why I had failed to impale the moon! From the surface of the moon things looked very different, very different indeed, yes sir, yes madam, and in fact it was the Earth that was doing the setting on the horizon, not the moon. Which explains why it wasn’t landing on my spikes.
     Perspective was to blame, that’s what I concluded after my eye saw all that, so I decided to approach the problem from that angle. I went to the government department responsible for perspective and I knocked on the front door but it didn’t open, so I knocked on it again even harder and it still remained shut, but a window gaped wide.
     The window was high up, on the top level of the building, and an unseen voice called down at me, saying: sorry, no member of the public is allowed inside the Department of Perspective, please go away and don’t come back! And then the window was closed with a bang and I pretended to go away but in fact I hid and waited for nightfall.
     Then I entered the building by climbing onto the roof and sliding down the chimney. Once I was inside I located the room where they keep the machines that control perspective, devices that ensure that parallel lines stretching to infinity only seem to converge at a distant point but don’t really, and I adjusted the dials more to my liking.
     Then I sabotaged those machines so they were stuck like that. And I climbed back out of the chimney and headed for home and now I noticed that the two parallel lines of the railway track I walked down really did meet at a point, and that point was next to my house. I turned my key in the door and it was very late when I went to bed.
     When I awoke early in the morning I went to prepare my breakfast and I had broccoli and chocolate as usual, but something had changed. The pieces of broccoli looked like the trees of a rainforest and the triangular wedges of chocolate resembled alpine peaks, and because the laws of perspective had been changed they really were that massive.
     Needless to say, I only nibbled at them and then I went out and amused myself by filling my cheeks with air and puffing at distant towers that instantly fell down because they were only as big as they looked, whereas objects that were near my remaining eye seemed large and therefore were. A lost child’s marble was like a fallen moon.


When the real moon appeared in the sky, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, I simply reached out and snatched it in my jaws. Then I crunched it to pieces between my teeth. Can’t say it was particularly tasty. No sooner had I finished than I spied the Molybdenum Cat far away, coming over the horizon like an idle thought. I seized my chance.
     I lunged at his tiny figure and I don’t rightly know what happened next but he vanished from sight. I’m fairly sure I didn’t swallow him. The only plausible explanation is that he jumped into my empty eye socket, the left one, and hid inside the cave it formed. Probably he still lives there, like something out of prehistory, warming his paws around a fire.
     I bet he even invites passing travellers inside to sit around the flames with him while he entertains them with stories, tales about the Pig Iron Mouse, like this one for example, exactly like this one in fact, told from the viewpoint of the Pig Iron Mouse himself, just to be clever. And now the flames are dying down and I’ll bid you a moonless goodnight.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

In Eclipseville (2008)

This brief tale is the third in a short linked series about impossible or at least unusual cities, Moonville and Sunsetville being the first two. Originally the main character was going to be Frabjal Troose, who turned into an inventor of improbable machines, but in my fiction the contributory elements often go off on their own paths and I am happy to let them do so. That shadows can have brightness seems illogical at first but on closer analysis this is seen not to be so.

In Eclipseville the authorities have decreed that shadows are more real than the objects that cast them. Substances have no value there: the people would spit on them, if spit was not also a substance. The shadows of spitting people flit rarely on walls in that city.
Some grades of shadow are more highly regarded than others; this goes without saying. The shadows of watermelons have great status, as do those of clocks, scissors, very tall hats. The most valuable shade of all remains to be seen: the shadow of the sun.
Not all shadows are visual and cool. The authorities insist that musical notes are the true shades of instruments, rather than those dark outlines that pretend to be flutes, harps, dulcimers. The implications of this creed must seem absurd to outsiders. Cymbals are only symbols of their own tinkle.
In Eclipseville most nocturnal activities take place in the afternoon. Between lunch and teatime the lonely nightwatchmen poke about in cellars and catacombs for evidence of the night, in accordance with their contracts of employment, but never find any until they abandon the search and switch off their electric torches.
Meanwhile lovers perspire, servants worry about ghosts, burglars prowl, lurkers throb, pools of wax on tablecloths harden under stubs of candles in recently closed cafés, astronomers squint through lenses on rooftops and talented insomniacs generate soft piano music or gently pluck the strings of muted lutes while uncultured neighbours snore.
Many of those talented insomniacs learned to play in the famous Music Institute, a building that is the grandest on the urban landscape. In truth it is not a single structure but a cluster of old dwellings sheltered by a translucent dome, a difference that is a question of interpretation, for a sweet melody might likewise be defined as a sequence of unrelated notes linked ‘only’ by a key signature.
Some say the palatial mansion of Frabjal Troose is one of those clustered dwellings; not I. Others say the Once Held Hands Crossing is also contained within the Institute; I disagree again.
My name is Sacerdotal Bagge and I am one of the authorities of the city. My disagreements are shadowy, like my policies, but I remain undisturbed, for not all shadows are dark. One day a brighter star will move behind the sun and the sun will drape its own shadow, blinkingly bright, on our houses, souls and financial affairs. A scorching umbra, shimmering.
Let it be known that Eclipseville had a difficult birth, for it was the result of a collision and meshing between two contradictory forces, the rival cities of Moonville and Sunsetville. When the moon passes before the sun the day becomes night, and wine, kisses, oddness, cool breezes and nocturnes are suddenly necessary. An expensive business…
An attempt was once made to freeze one of our best shadows. A hat taller than the highest minaret was positioned so that its shadow fell into a vat of liquid hydrogen. The procedure worked. When the hat was removed its shadow remained in the cold fluid.
But the shadow had turned brittle and when it was fished out it shattered into a million tiny sharp fragments. These splinters were caught up by the wind and swirled down the streets. Some specks lodged in the eyes of men and women; others stabbed into hearts.
With those motes blurring their vision, the citizens of Eclipseville saw hats everywhere. Teapot lids became sombreros, manhole covers turned into berets, even eyelids were perceived as being skullcaps for orbits. And soon I will have occasion to talk about other types of orbit. As for people with hat shards in their cardiac muscles, they soon found themselves brimming over, but not always with emotion.
Although a success, the experiment was deemed a failure.
That is often the case in Eclipseville, and I, Sacerdotal Bagge, have little desire to change our methodology.
In fact I backed the decision to make a second attempt, to freeze an aural shadow instead of a visual one, to solidify a musical note. We constructed a special machine. A hearing trumpet of immense size led into the side of a gigantic compression refrigerator.
A lever worked gears that lowered extremely heavy weights onto a piston. But first we needed something to compress. Musicians came and played the same note into the mouth of the trumpet and when the inner chamber was full I pulled the lever.
Slowly the sound was crushed into an enormous black orb. The chamber was broken open. Inside: solid music, smooth to the touch, humming faintly but insistently. What did we do with it? We launched it into space with a catapult, fixed it to the line of the celestial equator. A note belongs on a stave. Only there will it play properly.
Imagine many spheres of solid music – crotchets, minims, breves – in orbit, pinned by gravity to the ecliptic and other lines of heavenly latitude. An authentic prelude to the future…
The globe orbited our planet like a swollen drone, crossing in front of the sun and the real moon, increasing the frequency of eclipses visible from our city, but it did not play for us. There is no sound in a vacuum. No matter. The note was visible. We imagined it would remain in place forever, but it began to fade. The same note sustained too long becomes inaudible. We had forgotten that simple fact.
Eventually it was gone. We did not care.
A big mistake. Just because an object is invisible does not mean it has ceased to exist. Then something very unexpected occurred. A delegation from a brighter star crashed into the note without realising it was there and was destroyed. They had planned to offer us admission to a galactic club of advanced civilisations. The attendant benefits were consumed in blue plasma flames. For long minutes shadows held no sway.
The authorities of Eclipseville no longer emerge from their offices. They shamefully project their shadows out of little rooms over the thresholds of thin doorways, down marble steps, into the streets. They wag long flat fingers on flagstones, wavy fingers on cobbles.
These fingers form a musical stave. Shards of a broken moon fall on the lines or between them. Such things must happen in a city where one strange event is always eclipsed by another.




Sunday, 2 July 2017

No Fury (2015)

This story is the first in a linked series that play games with 'wise' sayings. The entire series was published as one story called 'Wise Man' in my book Brutal Pantomimes but originally I had no intention of writing a series. This often happens with me. I will write a tale with no thoughts of writing a sequel, but the sequel comes in due course, and then more sequels, and before long a new story-cycle has been created.

A wise man once said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and he wasn’t only a wise man but a wise man who knew what he was talking about. It really is important to be aware of the difference.
There are hundreds, thousands, possibly millions, of wise men, even very wise men, in this world of ours, but the majority of them don’t know what they are talking about. This doesn’t make them any less wise, but it does make them wrong. Yes, you can be wise and wrong.
Being wrong often has repercussions, but those repercussions might take a long time to catch up with the person they are intended for. On the other hand, they frequently manifest themselves without delay, so don’t be too nonchalant if you are wrong and hope to get away with it.
As a wise man said, “If you go into the forest with a walking stick, don’t be surprised if one day a tree walks into your town carrying a human leg.” The wise man who said that was me. Yes it was.
I am also a wise man, one of the wise men who are right as well as wise. I nearly always know what I’m talking about; and on those rare occasions when I don’t know, I am aware that I don’t know.
Because I am a wise man, one of the best of all wise men, I’m able to act on the wisdom of other wise men in an effective and noble manner. Thus I once decided to do something remarkably wise.
Just to be wise to an ordinary degree wasn’t enough. Even to be very wise was insufficient. I wanted to be so wise that my wisdom would reach new levels and set standards of unsurpassable sagacity.
I decided, no less, to save the endangered souls of multitudes of people. I decided to do this without thought of any recompense. I decided to do it for the sake of being a good as well as a wise man.
By employing the word ‘people’ I am being disingenuous. It was only the souls of women that I planned to save. I would have attempted to save the souls of men too, but I simply didn’t know how. Just because I am wise doesn’t mean I’m a genius. I am as fallible as anyone else.
But how does one go about saving women’s souls?
Well, there’s a big clue in the saying of the wise man I quoted above, not the saying that I said, but the saying of the other wise man, the first wise man I mentioned in this document. A very big clue.
Some clues are so big that they stop us seeing them in total, in the same way that a mountain can’t be appreciated in full when we are too close to it; so these clues are baffling rather than enlightening. This is absolutely the case with what the wise man said about Hell and fury...
I mean that people are familiar with this saying and they often quote it to each other, nodding their heads in understanding and agreement; but they don’t actually understand it and therefore can’t really agree with it. The truth within this saying is too immense to absorb correctly.
But I was wise enough to be able to ponder on it for a long time, and from a moral distance, a distance great enough to show me the outline entire, and for my ponderings to be fruitful, insightful and unique. And that’s what I did; and it suddenly occurred to me that here was a sure method of protecting women from the eternal torments and despair of the fiery pit.
For it is logical that if Hell has no fury like a woman scorned, then there are no scorned women in Hell, otherwise Hell would have a fury comparable to a woman scorned, and not just comparable but identical, namely the fury of any or all of the scorned women massed down there.
So if I went about scorning women, I would be saving them from future damnation. I would be saving their divine souls. Imagine that! No more Hell for uncountable numbers of women who would surely end up there if it wasn’t for my utterly astounding and very wise generosity.
First, I had to find out what constituted the act of scorning. I consulted a number of books, including dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and learned that to scorn someone requires a measure of contempt for them; and to have contempt necessitates that one feels they are beneath you.
Contempt isn’t the same as hatred, for if you hate a person it means you fear them. When you feel contempt, there is an inherent aspect of superiority in your attitude. They can’t hurt you, only irritate you by the mere fact they dwell on the same planet as you, that you share reality.
We express our hate with schemes, tricks, violent actions; but contempt is expressed with words and expressions, perhaps even only the angle of a nose or chin, the arch of a single eyebrow, a slight sneer.
Accordingly, I mounted my bicycle and proceeded to pass women with a look of absolute derision on my face. I know they noticed this. If there was any doubt in my mind, I would turn and pedal back towards them, still carrying the same look. My nostrils were flared, my lips tight.
Thus did I scorn women, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of them, over a period of many long years, in winter and summer, day and night, in rain and shine. Eventually I would have been the salvation of millions, but our lives are fragile things and so are bicycles. I grew old.
My bicycle rusted, my joints stiffened. Yet I could retire with pride, for I had prevented uncountable numbers of females from going to Hell when they die. They still remain unaware of what I did for them; and consequently I have acquired a reputation as crank instead of saviour.
I am writing this document in order to put the record straight. I am a wise and good fellow. If you are a woman and reading this right now, remember that I may have saved you from a horrible afterlife. If you are a man, then you must save yourself, there’s little I can do for you. Sorry.



Thursday, 29 June 2017

Love Keys (2013)

In Paris there is a bridge covered in padlocks. Lovers write their names on the locks and then fasten them to the bridge and throw the keys into the river. It's a symbol that love will keep them together. The bridge is covered with thousands of them and there is almost no room for any more. I first encountered the concept in London a few years ago but the Parisians have taken it further. I wrote the following story based on the premise and it has just been published in my new book, SALTY KISS ISLAND, which is a collection of my fantastical love stories.

In a northern city or perhaps a southern one there was a footbridge made of metal that spanned a wide grey river in a low and not ungraceful arch. One end of this bridge was located near an art gallery and the other wasn’t too far from a mighty cathedral with an impressive dome. It was extremely pleasant to cross this bridge in either direction and many people took advantage of it, sometimes just for the delight of making the crossing rather than because they really wanted to reach the far side of the water. It was a perfect place for a stroll, which is why strollers were attracted to it from every part of the city.
         Over time this bridge acquired the reputation of being a romantic structure and lovers adopted it as their own, though it could be true that the lovers arrived first and the reputation later. Nobody really knows. At any rate, these lovers took with them little padlocks inscribed with their initials, often surrounded by hearts, and they secured the locks to the railings and cast the keys over the side. It was a tradition that spontaneously arose, as such customs often do, and the idea was to dramatically symbolize how the couple in question were locked together forever and that the only means of escape was lost.
         The authorities didn’t dare put a stop to this practice, despite the fact that the weight of so many locks on the footbridge was a cause for concern among the engineers who designed it, because for most citizens adding a lock was a wistful, charming, beautiful, funny, touching, sweet gesture, the very epitome of youthful optimism expressed in a simple act of commitment to another human being. Nor did the manufacturers of padlocks complain much. In fact the practice is what the bridge became most famous for, despite its excellent location and the tremendous views from various points along its length.
Photo by Marie Ferandji
         Eventually the locks accumulated to such an extent that no railing had one spare place for another to be added, so new lovers began securing their own locks to locks already in position. The bridge did sag a little but still no one came with a hacksaw to cut the locks off. And then one morning it was noticed that when a key was thrown into the river it no longer made a splash but a tinkling sound and that the mass of discarded keys was forming an island that had been rising out of the water for years and was now breaking the surface. But lovers still came to put padlocks on the span and jettison the keys.
         And so this island grew to maturity and became established as an unofficial but important geographical feature of the city. A brand new custom arose for men and women who were no longer in love to swim or row out to the isle and search for the key that would open their own particular lock. It was nearly impossible to identify the right key by sight alone, so they would simply select a key at random and return to shore and cross the bridge and try it in their own lock, which rarely opened. Standing there, unable to open the symbol of their enjoinment to another person, they would be filled with frustration.
         Instead of flipping the useless key over the side, vindictiveness or curiosity would get the better of them and they would systematically try it in every lock until one of them sprang open. To complete this malign act, they generally threw the open padlock over the railings and onto the isle of keys; and over a period of time the locks began to outnumber the keys, as if some bizarre geological process was at work. Couples would split up when they discovered their locks were gone, each blaming the other and venting their anger by visiting the island to take a key and spoil the relationship of some other pair.
         Thus the locks vanished from the bridge one by one until none remained at all. But this is the truly odd thing: unbeknownst to anyone, the bridge had already decayed away. Only the locks had remained intact and their complex interlinking had formed a substitute structure, a chain of love that spanned the water, so when they were removed the bridge ceased to exist. It was dismantled by the power and ingenuity of sadness until the river flowed just as it had done before the building of the footbridge, and the two halves of the city, once in love but no longer, were separated by the oily currents of circumstance.


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Wood for the Trees (2009)

This story is set in India but the style owes more to the early stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese writer I was reading at the time I wrote the tale. It was published in my TALLEST STORIES collection in 2013. The idea that people marry trees is not an invention, however, but something that does actually happen in certain circumstances. I have hugged many trees in my life but never married any of them...

I’m stopping at Jitvapur now, so I might as well tell you a story connected with this place. Jitvapur seems no different from any other little village in Bihar, which as I’m sure you know is the poorest and most rural district in India, but appearances can often be deceptive.
Just like certain bridegrooms…
Not long before my arrival, there was a wedding here and everybody took part with the gusto typical of such happy events. Needless to say, Jitvapur is a very traditional community and all the customs were strictly observed to ensure a fruitful and fortunate marriage. Even the most absurd superstitions were carefully heeded, so that destiny would have no compelling reason to cause trouble.
The name of the bride was Amrusha, the groom was called Rakesh, they were healthy young people well suited to each other, and everything seemed in its proper place as far as anyone could tell, so a prosperous life together was warmly anticipated by all. There had been a small problem at the beginning of the arrangement, due to the fact that Rakesh was a manglik, but that was sorted out now.
A manglik is a person born under the astrological condition known as mangal dosha. In other words the planet Mars was in the second, fourth, seventh, eighth or twelfth house of the Vedic lunar chart when the individual entered this world. In India the condition is widely believed to be extremely bad for marriage and if a manglik marries a non-manglik the outcome is certain to be death or even divorce! The government of India has repeatedly attempted to discourage this superstition but in regions as remote as Bihar it persists strongly.
Two mangliks may marry each other safely because the negative energies will cancel themselves out. But Amrusha wasn’t a manglik. On the contrary, her horoscope was impeccable. So her match with Rakesh was dangerously unbalanced.
Nonetheless there exists a solution to remove the difficulties. If the manglik submits to the ceremony of kumbh vivah, in which the manglik marries a banana tree or a peepal tree, all the bad luck will be neutralised. Bizarre as it may sound to our ears, people in India do still marry trees, and in fact a famous actress did so just a few years ago. You have probably seen her photograph in newspapers even if you haven’t sat through any of her films.
Anyway, Rakesh had endured the kumbh vivah rituals and married a tree, so the final obstacle to his union with Amrusha had been removed in the approved fashion. He was first taken to the tree in a baraat accompanied by dancing villagers and hired musicians and many of his cousins sang songs to him along the way. Various rites were performed by purohits and he saw that the tree was already decorated as a bride. After the couple were pronounced man and tree the feasting began and the guests offered shagun to Rakesh, which he gratefully accepted.
A ‘baraat’ is a marriage procession in which the groom rides on a horse to meet his bride, while a ‘purohit’ is a wise scholar with a comprehensive knowledge of rituals, and ‘shagun’ is a unit of good luck usually wrapped up like a parcel in a blessing. But Rakesh already knew all that…
Clearly I am explaining for your benefit alone.
That was how his first wedding went and because of its success Rakesh was ready for his second. His horse was a beautiful and noble steed and the musicians played even more sweetly this time and the singers sang with even greater devotion. There was a pervasive but unspoken feeling that this occasion was more authentic than the other and that Amrusha was somehow a more deserving bride than the tree. She certainly looked radiant when he approached her and dismounted.
Suddenly this touching ceremony was disrupted by an intruder…
“What do you think you are doing?” demanded a voice that was powerful and yet insubstantial, as if it issued not from a mouth powered by lungs but on the surfaces of leaves rustled by the wind. Rakesh glanced up.
“I am getting married to Amrusha,” he answered weakly.
“But I’m your wife!” cried the tree.
There was a lengthy pause and everybody involved in the procession shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground, too surprised to even gasp or jump back, but Amrusha kept her nerve and gazed without flinching at the uninvited guest. She decided to explain the situation as clearly and concisely as possible.
“Yes, you are his wife, but only in a symbolic sense. Rakesh is a manglik, you see, and he had to marry you to make it possible to marry me. It was never intended for his marriage to a peepal tree to be taken seriously…”
“A peepal tree? A peepal!”
And now a large branch dipped down with a handful of twigs at its end bunched into a fist and this fist came to rest under the quivering chin of Rakesh. “Bigamist!”
The bridegroom wasted no time in taking to his heels. He ran towards the horizon, his feet throwing up clouds of dust that failed to hide his escape route. With a furious sigh, the tree set off in warmish pursuit, because anything too hot in a wooden lifeform might start a lethal fire, but Rakesh already had a notable headstart. First the tree tried to mount his horse and ride off after the errant husband, but the horse associated the shade of a tree with a rest period and refused to budge. So the tree had to rely on its own motive power. Instead of using its exposed roots as legs, it fell to the ground and began rolling at high speed like a gigantic pencil across a sloping desk. If it caught up with Rakesh it would probably crush him.
It was only at this point or even a little later that the wedding guests realised the tree was a banana.
Amrusha was shocked. “What a scoundrel he was! It seems I’ve had a lucky escape. Good riddance to his kind!”
Because of the distance and fading light, it soon became impossible to see the two receding figures and nobody got to learn if Rakesh reached the safety of the mountains to the north. Perhaps he is still running and the banana tree still rolling. Amrusha remains upset by the whole affair and is still unmarried, but that’s hardly surprising bearing in mind that these events took place only a week ago…
Yes, when I arrived at Jitvapur the story was extremely fresh, even though one of its elements had gone off. It would be hypocritical of me to apologise for that pun, because I intend to deliver another. Where I come from, when a human couple get married they say ‘I do’ to each other but trees only say ‘I would’. That’s a fact.
I did consider calling this story ‘Would for the Trees’ but that play on words seemed inappropriate because none of the characters speak fluent English in public, not even the tree. I’m fond of literary conceits but I do have limits. Having said that, this text does contain at least one other trick, a deliberate deception.
The truth is that I’m not really stopping over at Jitvapur right now. In fact I’ve never even been there. Which makes leaving in the morning much easier.


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

An Inconvenient Fruit (2010)

This very brief story is the first in a sequence of absurdist tales featuring a protean character by the name of 'Thornton Excelsior'. The stories were collected in a volume called The Lunar Tickle, one of my personal favourites of my books. The stories tend not to be based on empirical logic but on the logic of word and ideas association. As I have said elsewhere, this is quite a common technique with me.

It is unknown how Thornton Excelsior obtained the peach that destroyed the world by flooding it with juice. He simply doesn’t remember; the catastrophe was so immensely unexpected that it wiped his memory clean. He sat on his porch on a rocking chair and bit into the flesh of the fruit. And that was that.
Once the restraining skin of the peach was broached, the juice inside exploded outwards. The pressure of the spurting liquid jettisoned the fruit out of his grasp and it soared over the horizon and into the sea. The waves lapped themselves like cats made of milk. If he hadn’t been sitting on a rocking chair the recoil would have killed him.
The juice spread across the surface of the ocean. Already the slick was larger than a province, a state, a federation. Thornton was aghast; it’s not something that I recommend, being aghast, but you are welcome to try for yourselves. Sweet sticky juice rising inexorably, pouring over dykes and into flood plains. Inundation!
Presidents, kings and generals pointed the finger at him. They made an extra long finger by welding iron tubes together and poked him with it. He recoiled and hid under a table; but the steadily rising liquid forced him up the stairs and finally into his attic. The hollow finger followed him. Then it spoke; a voice vibrated out of it.
“Thornton, old son, don’t worry about a thing. Those presidents, kings and generals are superfluous and will come to a sticky end. But I have taken a fancy to you; and I will save you. I command you to build an ark, a vessel that can sail the tide of juice and keep you alive until the crisis is over; but this ark mustn’t be made of wood or fibreglass or other conventional shipbuilding materials. To surf a global juice surge, only one substance is proper: planks of frozen clotted cream! Do you hearken to me, Thornton Excelsior?”
“Yes, yes! But who are you?”
“I am Zesto, the God of Fruit. Do what I command and all will be well. After forty days, give or take a month, the juice will recede and the ark will settle on solid ground. Then you may rebuild civilisation from scratch, or if not from scratch from itch. You may also found a religion in my name.”
“Must I take one pair of every beast?”
“Animals on a ship made of clotted cream… Don’t be silly!”
Thornton constructed his ark and it floated on the juice without sinking. The voice that lived in the tube never came back, not even when there was a violent storm. But Rosie O’Gassy said, “What the hell am I doing in this paragraph? I’ve never even existed as a character before.” And Thornton Excelsior answered with a smile:
“You don’t expect me to save humanity on my own?”
He was the first of the dessert fathers. His ark went rancid a long time ago, so there’s no point looking for it; but I won’t stop you if you insist. And Zesto put a giant banana in the sky to symbolise his promise that the world would never again be drowned in juice. There’s a pot of yoghurt at the end of it, supposedly.
As for the presidents, kings and generals: they were impeached.


Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Two Christmas Stories (1992 & 2009)

Like most writers in the western world I have written at least one Christmas story. It's a tradition that is difficult not to continue. Here are two such of my tales, both very brief, the first dating from 1992 and the second from 2009. For some strange reason, fantasy writers are especially prone to attempting Christmas-themed fiction.

Christmas Overtime: a Vignette

It is Christmas again, of course it is, and a full-stop has been placed quite deliberately, like a glacé cherry, at the end of the year. This time, though, you are excluded from the festivities. You have lost the chance to eat, drink and make Mary. Christmas is red rotund, noble and inane, but you are not. You cannot spill the cream of indulgence down the shirt-front of success. You cannot laugh when neighbours toast your health with your own Malt. You cannot choke on the wishbone of convention.
So now you decide to cut through the season with a serrated truth. You decide to fight back. There is no goodwill to all men, at least none without an ulterior motive, and you will tear away this canvas of delusion and expose the facts as they are, a process as painful as the breaking of a tooth on a sixpence concealed in a pudding.
But how can you do it? Is there anything you can do? You ponder this over. Yes, there is one thing. There is one balloon you can burst before its time, one cracker you can defuse, one fairy-light you can ground to coloured glass.
His door is ajar. You peer through the crack. His eyes are open. They are large and moist and round. You almost falter before taking the fateful step, but then, sudden intoxicating courage overwhelming, you push forward.
You enter without knocking. He turns towards you and smiles. There is unaffected joy in his smile. There is excitement intolerable. His stocking hangs large and empty. The tree in the corner winks its tiny lights. You are not what he is waiting for, but it is early yet. The hands of the clock pass very slowly.
Good evening, you say, and the awkward pause threatens to drown your resolution, drown it in his large, moist, round eyes. But you are still drunk with purpose. So with a breath as deep as a snowdrift, you continue.
There is no Father Christmas, you announce, savouring the effect of these negative words. There is no Father Christmas and no reindeer sleigh. There is no such bulky benefactor, and thus no hand in a fur-trimmed glove to fill your stocking.
And, of course, he bursts into tears. You are a liar, he wails, and yet as he voices these words, he knows in his heart that you are right and that his dreams are gossamer webs, baubles to be trampled underfoot, pine-needles to be shaken loose and swept away.
And triumphant, you close the door and return to your desk, while the sobs of your boss echo through the deserted office.


The Precious Mundanity

After the boy was tucked up snugly in bed, the mother kissed his forehead but she didn’t turn to leave. Then the boy said, “I’m so excited about tomorrow I don’t think I’ll ever get to sleep!”
She smiled at him and patted the sheets, but her face was sad. “There’s something I need to tell you,” she said.
His eyes widened in response. “You don’t mean I’m not adopted?”
“Don’t be silly.” She laughed. “Why would I lie about that? You’ve always known my husband isn’t your real father. No, it’s something else. You’re seven years old now and it’s time you learned the truth.”
“I don’t understand, mother,” he answered.
She sighed and regarded the simple bedroom. They were a poor family and lived in a very modest house in a shabby town. Outside, the sun had already set, but the sky still held enough light to illuminate the people trudging up the dusty street. A donkey began braying and kicking a clay wall; elsewhere the tradesmen and merchants were shutting their shops. A pale moon rose over the low hills. A normal evening.
“It’s about Christmas,” she said.
He was sitting up in bed now, blinking at her. “Yes?”
“Father Christmas in particular…”
His eyes lit up at the mention of this name. “Last year he brought me a toy boat and the year before that he gave me a ball and the year before that…” He caught his breath and added, “I can’t wait to see what he’ll give me tomorrow!”
She placed a finger over his lips and shook her head. “That’s exactly what I must tell you. Father Christmas doesn’t actually exist. It’s your father who brings you those gifts. Your real father. That’s the truth.”
“What?” He was distraught. “You mean there’s no such thing as Santa Claus? The jolly fat man in red with a sack over his shoulder is just a myth? A lie?”
“I’m afraid so. Your father pretends to be him.”
“My father? My real father? The supernatural force that created the universe? The omniscient, omnipotent lord of everything? Oh mother! You’ve turned Christmas into a magical occasion. You’ve destroyed the mundanity of it! The precious mundanity! I’ll never forgive you for this. Never!”
“My poor son,” She reached out to hug him close to her, but he pounded his little fists against her and then fell back on the bed and turned on his side. She spoke to his bristling back. “I’m sorry to break the news this way. Santa Claus is from the future, you see. That’s why your father keeps up the pretence. Even Christmas hasn’t been invented yet!”
But it was no use. He wasn’t listening. She rose and quietly left Jesus sobbing into his pillow.


Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Birthday Message (2016)

This story was directly inspired by the occasion of my birthday and my musings about the way we measure time. It is rigorously logical but uses the logic of associations between ideas rather than the logic of empirical causality. As I have explained elsewhere, this is a common working method of mine. This tale also disproves the old adage that there are no 'new' plots. The central conceit relies entirely on the possibilities that exist because of the telephone and would have been inconceivable before the invention of that instrument. Technology opens up new narratives not merely in terms of the usage of the technological objects themselves but in the unexpected consequences that arise from their application in the world. These consequences are epiphenomena of the invention and can rarely be predicted accurately.

It was the day before my fiftieth birthday. I sat in the most comfortable chair in my house and tried to focus on enjoying the fact that I was still in my forties. I wanted to squeeze every last drop from that decade before I finally reached the half century point.
         I closed my eyes and concentrated on doing this, as if the pressure of my tight eyelids was the mechanism by which the juice of youthfulness was extracted from the flesh of the year. Not that one really is a youth in one’s forties but time is relative, as we know, and the impending leap into my fifties did seem a considerable one.
         Then I realised that there wouldn’t actually be a leap. There could be no abrupt switch from my forties to my fifties, as if I had to jump a hurdle and land on the far side with slightly more weary bones. The process was in fact gradual, like gangrene, and had commenced during my sojourn in the chair. Parts of me already were fifty.
         This requires an explanation. Let me provide it.
         I am not referring to the truism that ‘age’ is how you feel rather than a simple measurement of how long you have existed on the Earth. It is clear that the number of times our planet orbits the sun is merely a convenience of administration when applied to people.
         It is useful to society to define an exact age in this manner but it is not accurate. We age not astronomically but biologically and for some people the process is slower than for others. This may be unfair but it’s the truth and there is no point arguing. Genetics, fitness and luck all play a part, of course, but this is not what I discovered.
         No, the insight that was granted to me in that chair at that moment had a spatial, one might even say geometric, foundation, rather than any direct association to biology. On the wall opposite my chair hung a large map of the world and it confronted me when I opened my eyes. The map showed lines of longitude clearly marked, thin strings connecting the north pole to the south, and strong enough not to snap.
         Forgive that absurdity. Those lines are not real, of course, but they aid our understanding of the cosmic body on which we thrive. And they help divide this spinning orb of ours into time zones. As I blinked at the map, I saw that my former conviction that acute mindfulness would allow me to fully experience and enjoy the last day of my forties was a delusion and a naïve product of geographical ignorance.
         For now I knew that the time zones across the globe were loading my fiftieth year into my body and life the same way that a program loads on an old-fashioned computer. It was happening by increments, percentages. Already I had been fifty in Kiribati, the easternmost of all lands, for the past hour. Soon I would be fifty in Fiji.
         Thus I was able, by examining the map in conjunction with a clock on the mantelpiece below, to closely monitor the spread of the infection, for want of a better word, of this invasion of my present reality by a fiftieth year I wasn’t ready for. I turned my mind inwards too, trying to analyse and confirm the effects on my system.
         The aspects of my soul that shared something or anything in common with those Pacific islands in terms of… what? culture or aesthetics? were older than the rest of me. They had forged ahead, those pesky pioneering aspects, deciding to be a vanguard pushing into the future. Or maybe they had merely grown wearier more easily.
         The Earth continued to revolve and my fiftieth birthday moved like an indomitable explorer across the map. Now I was fifty in New Zealand but not yet in Australia. My kiwi was older than my kangaroo. But what was my ‘kiwi’ and what my ‘kangaroo’? They were totems, metaphors, signs and symbols of something deep in my psyche, and although I was unable to say or even guess what they represented, it was mathematically certain that one was older than the other. I felt that the kiwi part of my soul was a more mature portion than the kangaroo.
         But the kangaroo caught up. They always do. Then I became fifty in Japan, in the Philippines, in Thailand and Burma. And I kept examining my soul to determine how it was changing. My pagoda was older. Unlike gangrene, the change didn’t creep but selected discrete blocks of aspects and transmuted them, aged them, but these blocks might not be adjacent to each other. My stupa was stupefied…
         A quarter of my life was fifty, then one third. I was uncertain whether this was a less painful method of crossing into my fifties than the sudden midnight plunge. Then the logic of the time zones reached India and my chakras turned fifty. A shiver ran through my frame. There was a subtle disconnect now between my chakras and the body that housed them. The idea was troubling, too troubling to bear.
         I had to take action at last. I have a friend in Madras who is a guru of sorts. My friend would hopefully give me the advice I craved. I picked up the telephone and called her and although it was late where she was, she answered without a sleepy voice. I spoke to her, telling her of my distress and the feeling of discomfort in my nerves. She listened with a repressed laugh that I could hear despite the fact it was silent. But she is a good and sweet friend and didn’t mock me openly.
         As I was babbling to her, it occurred to me that although I was sitting in my chair at the age of forty-nine, my voice on her end of the telephone connection was fifty! This thought made me break off in mid sentence. A voice older than the throat that utters it. I don’t mean older by fractions of a second but by an entire year and decade.
         So my voice was older than I was. It would have stayed the same age if I hadn’t called India. What a fool I was!
         Or perhaps I had been wise without knowing it. The reason my voice was older wasn’t necessarily because it was more of a feeble duffer than the mouth that had projected it. That was one way of looking at it, true, but one could equally declare that it existed in the future, an explanation that fitted all the facts just as plausibly and far more conveniently for my purposes. The sound of things to come…
         “Shubha, listen to me,” I said to my friend. “This voice of mine now has a temporal advantage over my ears.”
         She answered with some witty retort, but I found that I was concerned more with listening to my own words than to hers. I made hasty apologies and put the phone down. My voice was fifty and it was a part of me, so it must be fifty here too as well as in India.
         Anything I now said to myself would feature words that existed in the future, that originated from tomorrow. We often daydream about what it would be like to offer advice, from our more experienced perspective, to our younger self. I had a chance to do so.
         “The weather tomorrow will be sunny,” I intoned. I grinned at this, for the forecast predicted rain, but that was merely the educated estimate of a meteorological team using mathematical modelling, whereas my assertion came from the time itself, from tomorrow.
         In other words, my voice had looked out of the window and seen there was sunshine. No mathematics necessary.
         Had I been a gambling man I could have taken commercial advantage of the fact my voice existed in the future. Horse race winners would have contributed enormously to my funds. But that’s not my character. I have a philosophical outlook on life and feel contempt for the amusements of the acquisitive consumer society that has evolved to envelop us like a malign growth. My voice wouldn’t stoop so low.
         “I will meet the love of my life tomorrow,” I told myself and the news excited me. It is one thing to encourage oneself with a positive statement, to bolster one’s confidence and keep away despair, but quite another to receive that statement from the future, from a time when the happy event has actually happened, to be told it as a fact.
         After all, it had to be true. To my voice it wasn’t a future event but a contemporary observation. I wondered how exactly I would meet her, but then I realised I wasn’t required to do anything to make it happen. It was fated to occur. My voice had promised me.
         She was a vague outline in my imagination but the parts coalesced as I concentrated, the outline firming while remaining soft, and I found to my surprise that she looked a lot like my friend in India. Then I reasoned that my voice had very recently been within Shubha’s ear and surely still was basking in the afterglow. This was natural.
         I told myself many things that would enormously improve my life on the following day and I realised that I had a truly spectacular day to look forward to. I supposed that the source of many of these promised boons would be my friends bringing me gifts.
         The time passed in this manner and I turned fifty in Turkey, Italy and Spain. Only one hour remained before I turned fifty where I sat. Slightly less than half of me was fifty now, the rest still in my forties, so there was a neat balance. My doumbek, spaghetti and flamenco were a little older than my bagpipes, stout ale and riverdance, and rather more elderly than my banjo, burger and chicken strut. I was like a jigsaw man, with pieces that were both newer and yet older replacing those that already comprised the picture of myself. A curious paradox.
         Then the inevitable moment arrived and the clock struck midnight and my forties slipped off my bones like a silk negligee from the curves of the woman I was destined to meet very soon. Except that… not all my forties went away. By no means! Almost half remained. They were declining on the other side of my official birthday but they were still there. The world was revolving and embracing them in turn.
         I quickly phoned a friend in the United States of America. My friend was wide-awake because the night was relatively young over there. With breathless urgency I asked, “How old am I?”
         “Forty-nine,” he replied.
         “Then my voice is now younger than me.”
         “And you prefer for it to be the same age? Don’t worry, it will come back into synchronization soon.”
         “No, I want it to be older than me, to exist in the future, so it can tell me about events that will happen.”
         “Well, now it can tell you about events that have happened instead. It is good to know what has been.”
         “I already know what has been. The problem is that I no longer know what will be. It’s worse than that. I don’t even know what is. My voice is a past voice and so knows nothing of the present. No more than it knows about the future. What have I done?”
         I put the phone down and chewed my fingernails.
         Anxiety made me feel nauseous for some minutes. I told myself that I was worrying about nothing and that I should calm down, but such advice came from a voice existing in the past. How could that voice understand clearly what was happening right now?
         I ignored my own voice. I disdained its ignorance.
         Sleepiness finally overcame me and lulled the turmoil in my brain. I went to bed and although I muttered to myself in my sleep, as I always do, I didn’t wake with the feeling that I had missed out on some topic of importance. My voice was behind the times.
         Or was it? I jumped out of bed and consulted the clock and discovered that I was fifty in the USA too now. In fact I was fifty everywhere in the whole world. My voice had returned to me.
         I had planned to go for a birthday walk, to visit my friends and receive their blessings and gifts, to go for a special dinner, to celebrate. But none of this was required now. All these things would come to me wherever I was and whatever I did. My future voice had told me so. The love of my life would come to me no matter my location.
         So I stayed indoors and slouched on my chair and waited. The phone kept ringing, no doubt my friends wanting to know where I was and why I hadn’t met them at the designated hours. They were probably worried about me. But I sat tight and ignored their attempts to get in touch. There was no need for me to move a muscle. The events that were fated to occur would occur no matter what action I took.
         It rained heavily all day. I kept my faith until the end.
         When night fell I finally began to suspect that my voice had lied to me and had played a horrid trick on its owner. Probably it desired Shubha for itself and didn’t want me to have her…
         Even advice from the future can be mistaken, especially if the giver of the advice is deliberately deceitful. The rain against my window was like the tears of frustration I felt like weeping.
         Calling my friends one by one, I humbly apologised.
         I had wasted too much of my intimate time with the future and past and missed out on all my presents.




Gut Road (2004)

A brief horror story dedicated to D.F. Lewis, a very prolific writer of brief horror stories who was the first writer I ever met personally, in a pub called The Shakespeare near Victoria Train Station in London back in (I think) 1993.

That was the sort of person Mr Lewis was, a man who seemed happy to leave the hotel just as the sun was going down and walk into the hills with insufficient supplies and the wrong shoes. Probably a product of his desperate need to compensate for a sedentary youth with belated adventure.
The men at the tables made conversation over their beer as they watched him leave. He had already mentioned his interest in exploring the entire length of Gut Road. A good excuse for dark comments.
“He’ll soon be back.”
“No, we’ll never see him again.”
“You’re both wrong. He won’t come back but maybe somebody else will...”

The path was steep and narrow and soon he was alone in the dark but he knew another hour of hard walking would take him to the beginning of the ledge. Down in the valley there was always some light, the glimmer of the river and maybe a distant village or two. His fear was still smaller than his resolve.
All the same, he guessed his pace was slowing as he neared the broken fence and NO ENTRY sign. Two tourists had fallen to their deaths the previous year and the authorities had made token efforts to comply with official safety regulations. But of course this was a country where the people ignored authority.

Gut Road came as a big surprise. He had expected a concrete walkway bolted to the side of the mountain, an artificial ledge winding its way around the edges of the gorge as far as the reservoir, but instead he was confronted by the mouth of a tunnel. He groped at his belt for his powerful flashlight. He almost regretted it was there. He had no excuse to turn back.
He switched it on and stood on the threshold. Even before he looked to see what the beam revealed he had already called out: “Anyone there?”
Then he sniggered quietly. Anything truly hostile lurking in the tunnel would be unlikely to give him a reasonable reply. As he walked forward he imagined possible answers, all of them absurd by the nature of whatever spoke them.
“Yes, I’m here. A ghost.”
“I’m here as well, a demon of sorts.”
“Don’t forget me, a nameless cosmic horror. From the gulfs between the stars. But what are you doing here? It’s not appropriate.”
Mr Lewis nodded. Not appropriate and not clever, but all he encountered was dust thickly spread on the floor. It cushioned his feet and there were no other footprints in it yet. Nor tracks of any kind.

Back at the hotel the men still drank beer and infrequently toasted the faded portraits on the wall above the hearth. Already the landlord was preparing a new picture, huddled over a small desk in a cool corner, dipping his pen into a jar of crusty ink. The scratching of his nib on the rough yellow paper was the only significant sound in the room, a furtive but obtrusive noise like the mirth of a prehistoric rodent. He worked quickly and finished early and rose to glue his latest creation among his growing collection of ink faces.

Mr Lewis had entered a region of stalagmites and stalactites which chewed at his clothes as he ducked and stretched around them, his weary body moving up and down in the precise rhythm needed to dislodge the sweat on his neck and roll it down his spine. He puffed and shivered at the same time and itched under his own salt.
These spikes of rock turned the tunnel into a maze and the idea of retreating began to seem more tempting but he still craved a sense of achievement and could not quite bring himself to give up yet. He compromised by resting for a minute in a clear space, squatting in the thick dust and taking a long drink from his bottle.
He also found a loose cigarette in his pack and inserted it between his lips. But he had nothing to light it with. With a jolt of malign inspiration he unscrewed the lens of his flashlight and held the naked bulb against the tip of the tobacco cylinder. It charred slightly but did not blossom into flame. No matter. He should not risk damaging his single source of illumination.
He groped again in his pack for a match and his fingers closed on his mobile phone. This was a relief but he doubted a signal would be available from his present location. He left it where it was and cast away his cigarette. As he rose and continued his journey he wondered who had constructed Gut Road and for what purpose. Had it really been designed in the shape of a gigantic intestine?

Eventually his own digestive tract started to occupy his immediate attention and he found a secluded spot between the side of the tunnel and a thick column made from three or four fused stalagmites. He chuckled at his own shyness as he pulled down his trousers. There was an awful symmetry in conducting this process here.
Still no signs of other life, no relics of habitation or previous exploration, but he knew many others had preceded him, his guide book had told him so. How could tourists fall to their deaths inside here? Perhaps he was supposed to walk on the roof of the tunnel rather than push his way through it. A simple mistake.
Lighter in body and mind he walked reluctantly and was absolutely on the verge of turning back when his flashlight caught a sign nailed to a pole planted in the dust. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. Everything was safe again. Travelling down Gut Road was acceptable and possible after all.

The beer was almost exhausted and the next delivery was an hour after dawn but nobody moved. The portrait of Mr Lewis gleamed down at them, fading slowly, fitting in with the rest of the collection.
“Funny this constant exchange of residents.”
“But good for local culture. The valleys are so isolated. That must be the reason it exists.”
“Some people still think it’s a sculpture.”
“Are there other Gut Roads?”
“No, there was only ever one giant. A freak of nature millions of years ago, never to be repeated.”
“Not everyone makes it right through the body.”
The landlord glanced up and made his eyes wise. “Some are digested by their own incompetence.”

He had miscalculated very badly. The loops were further apart than he had assumed and the obstacle course created by the stone teeth was becoming more hazardous. He decided not to think about the consequences.
Although the tunnel had not forked at any point, he felt thoroughly lost, an illusion which excited his curiosity as much as his fear. He realised he was bleeding from a gash below his left knee. At least there would be a trail of blood to follow back this way. But in fact the dust drank it all and his own footprints seemed abnormally shallow. His adventure did not want to let go of him.
The flashlight was losing power. The bulb was dying. Too late to return now but if the going became easier he might still make it to the far end. He limped faster.
Less than one hour later he came across another sign. He snorted with pleasure but his beam revealed a blank square of wood. Nothing had ever been written on it. For an instant he gritted his teeth, furious at the worker who had erected it, but then his expression cleared. He walked past and studied it from the other side. That was the sort of person he still was.
In the timid flicker he made out the words. They were intended for a traveller coming in the opposite direction. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. He clutched the post for support.
Time to summon help, if he could. He pulled out his mobile phone and thumbed the number of his hotel, already rehearsing the apology he would offer but unconvinced that a connection could be made through the mineral walls. He was astonished to hear the dialling tone. Even before an unseen hand picked up the receiver he was already calling out:
“Anyone there?”

The landlord listened carefully, frowned and then replaced the telephone. The standard answers were no longer amusing. Ghost, demon of sorts, nameless cosmic horror. Not now. Old worn out jokes, completely pointless.
The others began to drift off to bed.
“Are there portraits of us in that other hotel, I wonder?”
“Do they actually look like us?”
“Will they fade with dignity?”
“That was the agreement,” confirmed the landlord.
The stairs did not creak but the carpet made an unwholesome sound rather like indigestion under the weight of tired feet and mildly bewildered souls.
“What I don’t understand is who did that to the giant? Pulled out his bowels and just left him to petrify. Who? Why? And how?”
“It was a long time ago,” said the landlord.

Mr Lewis was resigned to his fate or perhaps it was resigned to him. Either way it was best to abandon the struggle and rest his misplaced being. The bulb was almost dead. It gave off a deep red glow that turned his environment into a hideous kind of photographic darkroom. He selected a place and lowered his pack to the ground.
The only thing that might develop here would be a very sharp panic. But not yet. He sat in the dust and rummaged for the paper bag he had concealed at the bottom. It was still there, slick with leaked grease.
He planted his flashlight in the dust and settled back but the effect was too eerie, the weak beam casting formless bloody shadows on the irregular roof, so he reversed its direction and suspended it from a stalactite like a lantern. He used his belt to secure it in place. No need to keep his trousers up, not here, not now.
He returned to his paper bag. A meal at last. Nothing very palatable but that was an expected consequence of undertaking an expedition with insufficient supplies. Black pudding, an ironic choice. He tried not to breathe through his nose as he bit into it, to avoid the smell and lessen the taste.
Dust to dust, shit to shit.
And guts within guts.